Democracy and the Rise of Women's Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Published

Democracy and the Rise of Women's Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa by Kathleen M. Fallon. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, 168 pp.

In Democracy and the Rise of Women’s Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa, Kathleen Fallon sheds light on the evolution of gendered structures from the pre-colonization kinship allegiances through forced change brought with colonization to the economically charged organization lines of the 1970s and 1980s, landing squarely in present-day, collective emerging democracies. Though a relatively short book—seven chapters and 168 pages—Fallon captures the essence of hope amidst the obstacles and the politics of power.

This book speaks to the ongoing renewal and adaptation of gendered and political structures in the context of nebulous equality. It dares to envision a Sub-Saharan Africa more equal (informal and formal) than what currently exists. It is an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of democratic globalization and inclusion of women’s rights via democracy. Fallon provides a short, yet concise summary of the decades African women have spent trying to reclaim the power inherent in “popular democracy.”

Few studies look at the effects of the state on democratization in Africa. Using case study methodology as a backdrop, Dr. Fallon examines the current gender and political restructuring of Sub-Saharan Africa through an intensive study of the political community of Ghana provides a fertile ground for exploration of women’s movements during the transition from post-colonization to democracy. Politically stable for 20 years, democratic in nature and chock full of informal community associations with women at the helm, Ghana provides a window of opportunity to examine how cultural influences, gender legacies, and foreign politics affect women’s transformative actions. The interviews and surveys traverse women’s stories of urban and rural political participation: stories of queen mothers, colonization, democracy, and the struggle for legitimacy.

This case study is central to the reader’s understanding the political and social contexts that shape mobilization in areas other than Eastern Europe and Latin America. Though this is a comparative analysis, Fallon manages to avoid overgeneralization. Her analysis may prove influential in broadening the worldview of the uninformed and answering the desire for change sought by those like Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner in sustainable development, democracy, and peace. Fallon’s work answers such questions as: What happens to women’s movements during democratization? What is the role of the state in democratization? Where do the fears of the past and neophobia enter the equation? and What is the role of gendered structures in the democratization process?

The greatest barrier to the oppressed is in their own worldview. Oppression of any type (political, social, physical, economical, or emotional) is an unfortunate, complex component of society, both in the past and today. The views of those living within oppressive states can sometimes be compromised by external and internal forces, causing inaccurate perceptions and errors in thought and action that combine for faulty views. Dr. Fallon addresses one such dilemma encountered by Sub-Saharan women—state-tied women’s organizations.

These organizations, like the 31st December Women’s movement in Ghana, dangle social and economic opportunity as a carrot—a carrot that is laced with diffusion of opposition to the state. In many ways, the oppressed become the oppressors. Yet, through exuberant exploration, the women of Africa are finding their way through the smoke and mirrors using both informal and formal political processes. Fallon takes an in-depth look into the complexities of gender-related oppression including the dialogue in oppression, binary action in oppression, and polar methods (oppressor/oppressed) of oppressive transformation. The book’s title points to the result of empowerment: humanization and refined self-awareness inspired by generations of women liberators.

Democracy and the Rise is steeped with community association, objective/subjective duality, and social progress capable of providing democratic liberation. Dr. Fallon finds the balance between encouragement and empathy for women embarked on social progress. She reformulates the relationship between democracy and women’s mobilization at a time, and in a place, when technological and political advances outweigh social progress. Fallon presents empirical evidence of one of the silent, misunderstood, and ignored, social, political, and economic plagues in Africa—gender oppression. Its most important value may be to assault the soul into reflective action on our own oppressed environments.

Democracy and the Rise of Women’s Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa will be of interest to strategists interested in the region, in social intelligence, and in African studies. The waves of possibility from the reverberations of this book could prove great; this is not only a source of inspiration but one of praxis. It is both insightful and comprehensive. A must read!

Dr. Kathleen Fallon is an assistant professor of Sociology at McGill University, Canada. Her focus is on women’s issues (movements, political rights, and democracy). Dr. Fallon’s field studies include Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as other countries in the midst of democratization. Other works include “Using Informal Networks to Seek Formal Political Participation in Ghana” and “Wiring the World: Access to Information Technology and Development in Poor Countries.”

Patricia R. Maggard, PhD

Squadron Officer College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."